America seems to love two things: driving the family car in three or four lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours on end, and omnipresent advertising. Small wonder, then, that stock-car racing is so popular: Unlike sports that are supposedly a lot like American life, NASCAR actually is like American life.
As NASCAR is about driving fast in circles, it ought to be fairly easy to develop into a game. True, there are many different circles—ovals, short ovals, super-speedways, tri-ovals—infinite variety! While the (sort of) different-tracks thing is old hat, this year's edition of the NASCAR video game also throws in Total Team Control. In short, you can ask other drivers on your race team for help, a draft, a bump, and so on. This works danged well; they'll actually react in a realistic fashion, taking into account the racing situation and how you've behaved toward them recently. You can even switch cars on the fly, jumping into your teammates' ride to execute race strategy yourself, in a fun and useful touch that can't have been easy to develop. And you can use it on all levels of stock-car racing, from the minor-league Whelen tour on up, in the involved new career mode.
Sadly, the game's most basic elements are unforgivably awful. The graphics are flat, jagged, and coarse, which wouldn't matter as much if the handling wasn't close to broken on any setting—Nextel Cup cars don't spin on every other lap, highlight films notwithstanding. A driving wheel was needed just to play the game comfortably, and that's simply wrong.
Beyond the gameplay: Fun fact that's more interesting than anything in the game: Stock-car racing was born on the winding roads of the Depression-era South, where dashing antiheroes in hopped-up cars spent all night trying to outrun the cops in the name of glory, contraband, and easy money.
Worth playing for: Once again, EA has an exclusive lock on the people, places, and properties of a major sports series; this is the only game option NASCAR fans have.
Frustration sets in when: The speedometer says "206 mph," but your eyes say "Uh, Gran Turismo, Forza Motorsport, Burnout, Mario Kart, and the Final Fantasy spin-off Chocobo Racing all had a better sensation of speed than this. Also, Chocobo Racing had far more believable characters." Then you wreck, again.
Final judgment: NASCAR Thunder 2004 is now about $10.